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Vol. LXV, No. 22
October 25, 2013

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‘I Learn About Life Here’
Barbers of NIH: ‘If You’ve Got Hair, We’ll Cut It’

On the front page...

Barber Chuck Sartor

Barber Chuck Sartor

It’s 7:30 a.m. and the Clinical Center barbershop is open for business.

“Cutting patients’ hair—that’s our number one request from the hospital,” says barber Earl Sartor, who’s been with NIH for 11 years. “The barbershop is very important to the well-being of the patients.” Along with his brother Chuck, Earl works both at bedside and in the shop near the B1 cafeteria in Bldg. 10.

Here, they serve an essential purpose. “If you’re getting chemo, and you’re already sick and racked in pain,” Earl explains, “you got hair falling out, and you scratch it; sometimes it bleeds and then you have more chance of getting an infection.”

For these vulnerable patients, the staff may recommend a haircut.


“Sometimes patients hold onto their hair, and by the time we cut it, the scalp can be mighty tender,” Earl continues. “With all that other stuff you’re going through, having a tender head is not very comfortable…Some patients are here for months. Or years. So we adapt.”

Ambulatory patients who are cleared to leave the nursing units can visit the shop. Otherwise, the Brothers Sartor “go upstairs” to the patients, including those on contact isolation and in critical care. Chuck even recalls a patient in a coma: “His mother wanted his hair cut.”

For patients in financial need, a social worker may provide a voucher that meets the cost. Barber services are also available to visitors and employees. The clientele includes women and children.

“Every military person has to have their hair cut,” Chuck says. “I was going upstairs with my clippers to see a patient, and this [Commissioned Corps] officer said, ‘Do you all cut hair here? Do you do ladies?’”

“If you’ve got hair,” Earl says, “we’ll cut it. If it’s just 5, 6 inches, and you just want us to frame your face, we can do that. But if it’s over 6 inches, you want a stylist.” (The NIH beauty shop, adjacent to the barbershop, is temporarily closed.)

Barbers (from the Latin barba, “beard”) are members of an ancient profession. From the Middle Ages into the 19th century, barbers were surgeons, bloodletters and dentists. That lineage survives in the helical barber’s pole of red (for surgery) and white (for barbering). In the U.S., a blue stripe was added, perhaps to match the colors of the national flag.

This symbolic apparatus once had a treatment function. During bloodletting, whether by lancets or leeches, basins mounted on the pole’s base and summit were used “to collect blood,” says Earl, “and other materials.”

“Barbers used to pull teeth,” says his brother, “all for the health and welfare of the community.” Chuck, who’s been with NIH for 6 years, is a master from the old school. He not only cuts hair; he can shave with hot lather and a straight razor.

But there’s more to it than the snipping and shaving. Licensed barbers are also trained to examine the scalp.

Barbers Chuck (l) and Earl Sartor flank customer Jim DeLeo, who calls the CC barbershop “the most relaxing place in the CC.”

Barbers Chuck (l) and Earl Sartor flank customer Jim DeLeo, who calls the CC barbershop “the most relaxing place in the CC.”

Photos: Belle Waring

“Absolutely,” says Earl. “That’s what the comb-through is for. When you first sit in the barber chair, he’s looking for imperfections, lumps that the comb might not ride through, moles. And so he might comb your hair several times before he even turns the clippers on, because he’s doing a little research.”

Do they come from a family of barbers?

“We come from a family of baldheaded guys,” he quips. “No, Chuck started in this first. And I thought it was a good extension of what I used to do: draw all the time.”

So there’s an art to barbering? “After a person gets a good haircut, they would say so, especially if they go to [a chain salon],” Earl says. “[Those places] are an assembly line, nothing personal about it. But this is not an exact science.” True, especially when people don’t know what kind of haircut they want. To make folks look their best, the barber must pay attention to facial features.

At best, this professional assessment has a nurturing quality, or, at least, empathy; and perhaps this is why many men confide in their barbers.

“You’d be surprised,” says Earl. “Money. Relationships. Nothing new under the sun.”

Chuck adds: “Sometimes a man will come in, get in the chair, and I’ll say, ‘Your wife told you to get a haircut, didn’t she?’ And he’ll bust out laughing.”

“When a patient is getting chemo,” Earl chimes in, “I tell him, don’t worry about your hair. Your only job is to feel better and once you feel better, hair is really not that important. No one is ever going to ask you for your hair.”

Jim DeLeo, chief of the CC scientific computing section, enters the shop and settles in. “This is the most relaxing place in the CC,” he says. “We discuss philosophy. I learn a lot about life here.”

Historically, barbershops have been where men gather to socialize and converse. Why not choose to work in the community, rather than NIH?

“For me,” says Earl, “it’s the clientele and the one-on-one service to the patients…and you get to know people for an extended period of time.

“It’s run by the R&W, which provides recreational and patient services. If it was a barbershop on the street, you would have to convince the other barbers to do a charity. But it’s good for your heart to help somebody else. Nothing makes you feel better than a good haircut.”

Barber services are available by appointment at (301) 496-3019.

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